A Bigger Splash: Painting after performance – a personal response

(Originally published in Blue Pages, the journal of The Society of British Theatre Designers)

Visiting A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance, currently at Tate Modern, is an odd experience for a theatre designer. The exhibition interrogates the relationship between performance and painting – and, in fact, other visual media – from a variety of angles, sometimes tenuously but almost always in a way that is engaging and thought-provoking. However, it does this entirely within the frame of reference of visual art. It is as if performance outside the art gallery either does not exist or is merely a cultural phenomenon to be knowingly referenced; not a major group of art-forms that have their own evolutions, their own traditions and their own avant-garde movements. Yet we, as theatre designers, are engaging with many of the same issues as the artists in the exhibition, and with no less professionalism and integrity.

The curator deliberately, and probably sensibly, blurs the distinction between performance art (in which the performance itself is the work of art) and art that is made as the result of performance. The latter certainly meets the tagline of ‘Painting after Performance’ but also throws up some difficult questions. Sometimes the problem, at least for me, is simply that the performance element is merely a means. Yes, Pollock’s painting technique resembled a performance. But the end result is very much a painting. We are aware when viewing the painting of the physical gestures that created the marks, but does that constitute performance? If so, then so do all the gestural marks in art that have been left visible, starting with cave paintings made by an artist blowing pigment from his or her mouth.

Equally tenuous yet fascinating are the various works in the exhibition that play with self-portraiture. Of course, at one level, self-portraiture is always a performance. But Cindy Sherman’s photographs of herself in various guises occupy the same trajectory as Rembrandt’s self-portraits, some of which are costumed, or even the tradition of aristocrats getting themselves painted as figures from classical mythology. They may be performances of a sort, but that is secondary to their existence as visual images, indeed as gallery artifacts. They have not really evolved from performance art.

As for performance art as a thing in itself, much of the first part of the exhibition seems ultimately, but unintentionally, to be about the impossibility of capturing the liveness of such events. There’s documentation of lots of performances involving paint, mainly painting on bodies or using bodies to transfer paint to surfaces, for example Yves Klein’s Anthropometry of the Blue Era, and there are various artifacts created as a result of events, including Niki de Saint Phalle’s accurately titled Shooting Picture. Both events result in a finished piece of work on a wall: often what feels like documentation is the final work.  I’m not suggesting the curator has failed in her brief. Klein’s and Saint Phalle’s works are very much ‘Painting after Performance’. But, in contrast to Pollock and Sherman, for whom the performance element becomes redundant in the final work, these feel incomplete because of the absence of liveness. You’ve missed the main event but here’s the evidence that it happened.

I think the problem is perhaps impossible to resolve. A piece of work that isn’t live is fixed: a banal observation, yes, but one that’s at the root of why, for those of us working with liveness, this exhibition feels constantly frustrating. The unpredictability of a human being, the possibility that things might not happen as planned, simply cannot be captured. We designers deal with this all the time: when have production photos or videos ever captured the real feeling of our work? I imagine performance artists have the same frustration (unless they are more concerned with the documentation than the event). And yet this exhibition confidently assumes an easy transference of performance art into fixed artifacts.

The absence of liveness was even more of an issue for me in the second half of the exhibition, which dedicated a series of rooms each to the work of a specific practitioner. There were some pieces in the exhibition that function like stage sets but without performers: how are they then different from installations? Yes, they may invite one to populate them with an imaginary cast but so does a Claude landscape painting. Perhaps if we’d been allowed to enter some of these environments we may have felt like performers, but the invitation wasn’t there. One piece with mirrors, Edward Kransiński’s Untitled, at least made our reflections become performers. It was the only moment of true liveness in the exhibition.

Another piece, Lucy McKenzie’s Slender Means, which stood out for its beautiful use of traditional trompe l’oeil painting, has been used as an environment for performers to enact scenes, but the photographic documentation of the scenes made them feel like tableaux, with a sense of stillness that didn’t so much suggest theatre as Chardin. There was a theatricality about them, but no sense of time and no immediacy. They were great gallery pieces but they seemed to avoid performance as a theatre-maker would understand it.

Interestingly, there were references to ‘theatricality’ in a few of the labels, but that’s not the same thing as theatre. ‘Theatricality’, at least in how it seems to be used by curators, means something mannered, affected, over-dramatised. They may think they are talking about theatre as an art form, but they aren’t.

All of which begs the question: had contemporary theatre practice not been excluded, what could it have brought to this exhibition? Actually, it’s extremely difficult to find the dividing point between theatre and performance art (or the even more nebulous live art). Some people might say that performance art involves the artist being present as him or herself, whereas theatre involves the taking on of character. However, plenty of contemporary theatre blurs that distinction to the point of redundancy. One could define them in terms of the context for which they are made: the former for the gallery, the latter for the theatre. But as both visual art and the performing arts seek to break those bounds, again the difference is made redundant. I doubt there’s any tangible dividing line at all. But I do think there is a difference and that it lies in the way we think about art. Performance art, even when taking on the trappings of ‘theatricality’, emerges from a gallery-based tradition and we interact with it accordingly. This involves a particular set of assumptions on the part of the artist and the viewer. Performance art is made to be looked at with the same ‘eye’ as other visual art.

Which brings me to a slightly controversial point. Setting performance art alongside painting in the context of an exhibition with no actual live performance showed how similar their aims are. Most performance art, however complex and layered, is based around a single idea, rather like most paintings. It’s created to be part of a large exhibition, to be viewed and then left. Theatre, I’d say, tends to be something bigger, more complex and more complete. Which is probably why, contemporary art enthusiast as I am, so much performance and video art leaves me feeling disappointed. And that, perhaps, points to what we as theatre designers could have brought to this exhibition. A few well-chosen examples of theatre pieces that explore a painterly aesthetic, such as The Year of Magical Thinking, designed by Bob Crowley, could have suggested the vastly bigger worlds that can be opened up when making a visual response to a performance idea. And central to this is the principle that live performance remains the heart of the work and is not overshadowed by the need to make a piece that can be included in an art exhibition.

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